A ship chartered to monitor whether humanitarian organisations and people smugglers were collaborating to transport migrants into Europe is dodging unfriendly ports and threats as it closes in on the Libyan coast.
After being warned their vessel risked being held up by local authorities or even attacked in the Sicilian port of Catania when they stopped to pick up European activists, the Generation Identity group organised an operation to fly members to Cyprus and embark in secret there, one of its leaders told Euronews.
It is now heading directly towards Libya where its crew hopes to be able to destroy boats used by people smugglers and return any migrants found at sea to the nearest non-European port.
Pro-migrant activists and NGOs oppose the deployment of the C-Star, arguing that its presence could endanger lives.
Since 2014, roughly 600,000 migrants have reached Italy, relying largely on Italian and European naval ships as well as humanitarian NGO ships to rescue them and provide safe passage to Europe.
The C-Star was expected to stop in Catania this week to pick up Generation Identity activists, but instead they flew to Cyprus and boarded the ship on Saturday July 29 while it lay a few miles south of the Cypriot coast, Marco Malaguti, a leader of Generation Identity in Italy, told Euronews.
In a video released on Twitter on July 31 the activists said they were sailing south of Crete. MarineTraffic, a website that tracks marine vessels, confirmed their position south of Crete at approximately 675 nautical miles from Tripoli — a five day journey.
“We’d been alerted to threats to our ship by various coast guards and maritime institutions,” Daniel Fiss, co-leader of Generation Identity’s German branch, told Euronews. “Some leftist groups have already written on Twitter and other internet channels that they want to sink our ship and for that, for security reasons, the C-Star is changing her course.”
Pro-migrant activists in Catania have been protesting against the arrival of the C-Star, gathering at the port and staging a symbolic blockade at sea to apply pressure on the Italian government to deny the ship entry. The city’s mayor, Enzo Bianco, told Reuters news agency on July 21 that he would seek to prevent the ship from entering Catania’s port.
“We knew that we had been declared unwelcome in Catania, but we never got any formal communication from [the] Italian authorities,” Malaguti said. “In any case our activists split up seven or eight days ago and flew to Larnaca [Cyprus] to board the C-Star.”
Now the 40-meter ship is headed directly to the Libyan coast to begin its stated mission of “monitoring NGO activities, exposing their collaboration with people smugglers and intervening if they do something illegal,” and does not need to make any more stops, Malaguti said.
Since departing from Djibouti in mid-July, the C-Star has faced a series of setbacks which Generation Identity members claim are the work of NGOs trying to sabotage their mission.
Shortly after setting sail, the C-Star was blocked just south of the Suez Canal by Egyptian authorities. The ship’s crew did not have the appropriate documentation and papers, a spokesperson for the Suez Canal Authority told Euronews.
But Fiss claimed that “there was an accusation from NGOs who told the Egyptian navy that we had armed guards on our ship, so they investigated and searched the ship, but they found nothing”.
After being allowed to pass through the Suez Canal, the C-Star reached the port of Famagusta in the northern part of Cyprus on July 25, where its captain was briefly arrested on suspicion of forging documents after Turkish authorities found twenty Sri Lankan men on board. Five of the men requested asylum in northern Cyprus but the C-Star’s captain was released for lack of evidence the same day, Murat Kanatli, a human rights activist present at the port, told Euronews.
According to Kanatli, who spoke to the Sri Lankans, the men had payed $10,000 up front for a passage to Italy and were planning to pay $10,000 more upon arrival. When they realized that the trip was no longer possible, most of them decided to fly back to Sri Lanka from Cyprus, Kanatli said.
“We don’t know exactly what happened,” Fiss of Generation Identity said.
“There were 20 Sri Lankan guys on board collecting sea-miles as part of a training program. They had been on board since Djibouti and wanted to leave the ship in Cyprus and go back to Sri Lanka. Then at the airport they got some offers from NGOs for asylum in north Cyprus, and after that the NGOs started accusing us of human smuggling, but that’s definitely not true.”
Euronews was unable to reach any of the 20 Sri Lankan men for comment.
Following the release of the captain, the C-Star and its crew of nine was ejected from Cyprus on July 28 and waited in international waters for the activists to arrive.
The ship is finally headed to the international waters off the Libyan coast where this year 95,074 migrants have crossed and 2,378 have died trying, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
Aside from attracting the ire of right-wing groups, NGOs have also been under fire from the Italian government, most notably in February when the prosecutor of Catania Carmelo Zuccaro claimed that NGOs were collaborating with people smugglers — a claim that garnered much media attention before the prosecutor admitted he had no evidence to prove it.
The Italian government is trying to make the NGOs operating in the Mediterranean sign a code of conduct that would allow greater financial transparency and supervision by the Italian navy.
Generation Identity funded its mission through online donations, raising approximately $168,000 from 2,181 contributors since May 2017.
By Lorenzo Holt in Palermo